The final part of Michael Johnson’s series on the life and politics of James Connolly. The rest of the series can be found here.
The date of the Rising was set for Easter Sunday. However, crisis struck the rebels’ plans when the arms shipment from Germany was intercepted. When the more moderate Volunteer leadership around Eoin McNeill became aware of the IRB’s plans, the orders for manoeuvres on Easter Sunday were called off at the eleventh hour, with an ad placed in the Sunday Independent just to make sure that the message was relayed.
McNeill’s actions were, to Tom Clarke, “the blackest and greatest treachery”. For Pearse, intensely aware that of the uprisings of previous generations, they were “all going all going to be arrested anyhow, and on behalf of this generation we will have to make a gesture”. This was echoed by Desmond Ryan: “After all our marchings and speeches what else can we do? Would any one ever listen to our oratory against if we let this chance pass?”
The resulting confusion meant that the date was moved to Easter Monday, and the numbers much diminished. Only around 1,250 turned out that morning, and the leadership marched with a small contingent to seize the General Post Office on Sackville Street to begin the Rising. It was this last-minute confusion which provides the context for Connolly’s remark on that morning to the socialist William O’Brien that they were “going out to be slaughtered”.
It has become common to see the Easter Rising as a deliberate attempt to enact a “blood sacrifice”. This is a view which owes much to the writings of Patrick Pearse and the posthumous commentary in the poems of William Butler Yeats — most notably in The Rose Tree. Yet the rest of the Rising’s leadership did not agree. Connolly angrily dismissed the notion of sacrificial bloodshed as the talk of a “blithering idiot”, and the initial plans for the rising were far more advanced than eventual rising in Dublin would suggest.
Connolly, for instance, had studied the Moscow uprising in 1905 and wrote on revolutionary warfare in 1915 that: “Even under modern conditions the professional soldier is badly handicapped in fighting inside a city against really determined civilian revolutionist” and, presciently, that the “fortifying of a strong building, as a pivot upon which the defence of a town or village should hinge, forms a principal object of the preparations of any defending force, whether regular army or insurrectionary.”
Though they fought bravely, the Easter rebels faced the overwhelming might of the British Empire and decided to surrender after five days of fighting to prevent further casualties. Though reaction to the Rising was mixed, it was the British decision to execute the rebels which tipped Irish opinion against the government. Connolly, along with Seán Mac Diarmada, was amongst the last of the rebel leaders to be executed. So wounded was he from the fighting that he was carried out of the General Post Office on a stretcher, and had to be tied to a chair to face the firing squad in the yard of Kilmainham Gaol. Yet Connolly had no regrets. On the night before his death, he reflected to his wife: “Well, Lillie, hasn’t it been a full life, and isn’t this a good end?” To his daughter Nora he gave his last public statement: “Believing that the British Government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, of even a respectable minority, ready to die to affirm that truth, makes that Government for ever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.”
By way of an aside, attempts have by made by Desmond Greaves and others in the Irish Stalinist tradition to portray Connolly and an Irish Lenin, with assertions such as “Connolly’s thought ran parallel with Lenin’s … almost phrase by phrase.” Lenin’s position on the war was that “the war of 1914-18 was imperialist on the part of both sides; it was a war for the division of the world, for the partition and repartition of colonies and spheres of influence of finance capital, etc.” It was, therefore, “impossible to determine, from the standpoint of the international proletariat, the defeat of which of the two groups of belligerent nations would be the lesser evil for socialism… The conversion of the present imperialist war into a civil war is the only correct proletarian slogan.”
Connolly’s slogan on the masthead of The Irish Worker and on the front of Liberty Hall from October 1914 that “We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland” implies political independence from both camps but, in the round, Connolly’s position was more complex. While much has been made in subsequent commentary about the Easter Rising of German aid, and the reference to Ireland’s “gallant allies in Europe” in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, there is no principled reason why an oppressed nation cannot exploit the divisions between rival imperialisms in the fight for self-determination.
As Brian Hanley has argued recently, however, Connolly’s position went further in that He “eulogized Germany as a modern, progressive state and ignored or played down the reactionary nature of German imperialism.” For Connolly, the First World War was more narrowly, “the war of a pirate [Britain] upon the German nation”, which had its roots in the fact that “other nations began quietly to challenge the unquestioned supremacy of England in the markets.” This competition, he argued, led Britain to determine “that since Germany could not be beaten in fair competition industrially, it must be beaten unfairly by organising a military and naval conspiracy against her.”
In other words, while Connolly wrote that “we do not wish to be ruled by either empire”, in his opposition to the war he, understandably, prioritised the fight against the British Empire. His lesser-evilism was explicit: “the instinct of the slave to take sides with whoever is the enemy of his own particular slave-driver is a healthy instinct, and makes for freedom.”
In the context of European Social-Democracy Connolly was on the extreme left, in rallying the labour movement in Ireland against the war and denouncing “the act of socialists allowing themselves to be used in the slaughter of their brothers.” He blasted the hypocrisy of the Allied powers’ commitment to freedom, writing in 1914 that “Britain guaranteed the independence of Belgium. Yes, as she guaranteed the independence of Egypt, and then swallowed it up and slaughtered and imprisoned its patriot sons and daughters. Britain guaranteed the independence of Belgium. Yes, as she guaranteed the independence of Persia, and then encouraged her Russian ally to invade it and drown its freedom in a sea of blood.”
In The Irish Worker on 15 August 1914 he also denounced Britain’s ally, Tsarist Russia, as the “most brutal foe of human liberty in the world” and would soon after draw attention to the Russian Empire’s horrific anti-Semitism. However, when writing of Germany, his formulations often echoed those of the pro-war German Social-Democratic leaders. It was not only that the German “people are a highly civilised people, responsive to every progressive influence, and rapidly forging weapons for their own emancipation from native tyranny.”
The German empire, wrote Connolly, was “a homogenous empire of self-governing peoples” which contained “more of the possibilities of freedom and civilisation than” Britain’s. This logic led Connolly to go so far as to print an article from a pro-war German social-democrat interviewing the Kaiser. Connolly was left in “no doubt that” the Kaiser “understands the aims of the Radical Left in Parliament far better and has more sympathies for them than the world knows.”
Lenin declared against lesser-evilism, in favour of proletarian class independence . To those “German and the Austrian Social-Democrats” who were “attempting to justify their support for the war by arguing that they are thereby fighting against Russian Tsarism”, Lenin declared on behalf of the Russian Social-Democrats “that we consider such justification sheer sophistry” as it is the task of the Russian proletariat to overthrow Tsarism. Whatever its merits, Connolly’s position should be assessed on its own terms, not in an attempt to portray it as analogous to Lenin’s.
Connolly’s view is explicable in the context of the Ireland’s oppression by the British Empire and a healthy desire to counter act the wave of anti-German and anti-Semitic sentiment which was pulsing through British and Irish society. However, none of this implies a need to prettify the German state, against which its population would rise up in November 1918.